The Violent Femmes self-titled debut, released way back in the dark days of 1983, was an unnatural shot in the dark. It was one of those rarities you encounter occasionally in the wild and wooly world of pop music -- a debut album by a completely unknown band that emerges full-blown in your face and so totally takes over your life that you can't imagine why nobody ever thought of this before. Lead singer Gordon Gano told grim tales of futile lust while his band produced this unique noise, featuring Gano's speed freak from hell guitar playing, Brian Ritchie's bass-lines -- some of the best playing since early John Entwhistle -- and Victor DeLorenzo's spare but insistent drumming. The fact that the guitar was mostly acoustic, the bass was often stand-up, and the "drums" were a snare drum with a metal wash basin placed over it made the music they created singularly memorable.
But not nearly as memorable without those words. Gordon Gano's lyrics were at turns intensely dark and sidesplittingly hilarious. And they were as blunt as a beer bottle smashed over your head: "You can all just kiss off into the air" "what do I have to do/to prove my love to you?" and, of course, "Why can't I just get one fuck?/Guess it's got something to do with luck." The whole album was a tribute to sexual frustration, and his viewpoint was so universal that Violent Femmes became a huge underground party album.
After that stunning debut, they really had nowhere to go. 1984's Hallowed Ground tackled blues, country, folk, and death jazz, and while the band's sound remained unique, the forms they played were overly familiar and the album suffered accordingly. It did, however, contain the anthem "Never Tell" (possibly their best song), and I know for a fact that it saved at least one person's mental sanity. 1986's mostly electric The Blind Leading The Naked, produced by Talking Head Jerry Harrison, was almost a bid for commercial success (though leading off an album with a 30 second acoustic screed about Ronald Reagan being barred from heaven is hardly a move that makes people scream "sell out"), and it was often too cluttered for its own good. Then they disappeared for three years, and were presumed dead, or at least missing in action.
Well, like Tom Sawyer, reports of their death were premature, because they are back with their fourth album, cleverly entitled 3, and oh, the times, how they have a changed. It seems that horny Gordon has run headlong into The Age of The Fear . . .
I can't go out no more
I just better stay at home
Cause what am I gonna do if I see someone I'd like to do something to
I can't help being careful
Did you notice the world that we're living in?
Did you notice a chill in the wind?
People are dying just because they had a little
That's from "The World That We're Living In," the centerpiece of 3, where Gordon realizes that "just one fuck" could be his last fuck. The end. Or as Mick Jones put it, in a context a long long time ago and far far away: "Goodbye. For Keeps. Forever." It's no wonder that the lead track is called "Nightmares," and those nightmares are from "thinking about getting together with you."
But 3 isn't all depression and doom. Gordon Gano's dark humour is also prevalent, like in "Fat," where he wishes weight gain on a former lover, not for revenge, but because "if you got really fat/you just might want to see me come back," or in "Dating Days" where he points out that "It seems no matter how much I drink I seem to still stay sober/it seems that no matter how young I am I seem to still feel older."
As good as the words are, the real delight of 3, (and the source of its title), is the re-stripped down Violent Femmes sound. They've devolved back to their acoustic guitar, bass & snare drum axis and it is a pure delight to hear again. Not since that first album have they seemed so loose in their playing and singing, so when the occasional odd instrument is thrown in, it always supports and enhances the song, not overpowers it. Listening to songs like "Fool in the Full Moon," "Lies," "Mother of A Girl," and the aforementioned "Nightmares" (which also has really neat backing vocals) is like rediscovering an old friendship.
Because the Femmes are almost an acquired taste, and are so without reference points that it's almost impossible to market them to anyone but their cult, 3 probably won't sell any better or worse than their other albums, but if you've ever enjoyed any of those other albums, you should dig this one. And I'd be my CD collection that this time around, that's all they were aiming for. And is sure is good to have 'em back.
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This document HTMLized 15 August 2001
I was listening to Ryan Adams -- Gold